Students from the Eller College of Management meet with staff from the Bard Date Company to determine ways to improve data pollination. (Photo courtesy of Eller College of Management)
STUDIES HAVE LONG shown that experiential
activity creates a safe place for
students to learn, make mistakes, and go
out in the field to apply the skills they’ve
learned in the classroom. But in an innovation
economy, business schools have
to broaden their definitions of experiential
learning. As we enter the Fourth
Industrial Revolution, where digital advances
are disrupting whole industries,
we must be aware of two key trends in
business: the convergence of the digital,
biotech, and physical science fields; and
the exponential speed of change.
To turn out the right graduates for
this complex digital world, we must
teach students to innovate at the intersection
of multiple disciplines. We must
shorten our learning cycles, and we
must build relationships with industry
partners. That is, we must deliver short,
focused experiential learning programs
that put students to work on multidisciplinary
projects with real clients.
At the University of Arizona’s Eller
College of Management in Tucson, we
deliver such programs through various
innovation labs where business students
team up with students from engineering,
law, humanities, the biosciences, the life
sciences, and other disciplines. MBA
candidates spend one semester of their
two-year program working with teammates
and executives to solve problems
submitted by our industry partners.
These include corporations such as
Microsoft, Raytheon, Banner Health,
and Intel, as well as smaller and more
socially driven organizations.
MAKE A DATE
One project involving date palm trees
in Yuma, Arizona, illustrates well the
power of cross-boundary experiential learning. Date palms require meticulous
cultivation; they need specific
and consistent weather conditions, the
right amount of irrigation and fertilizer,
and an expensive pollen that must be
administered within feet of the flower.
To compound the challenge, date pollen
typically retails for US$1,000 per liter,
and current pollination methods all have
drawbacks. In one approach, workers
climb the trees—which can grow 50 feet
tall—and shake a wand of pollen at the
top. In another, workers blow pollen out
with a tool that resembles a leaf blower,
which sacrifices precision.
The Yuma Center of Excellence for
Desert Agriculture wanted our students
to look for a better way to achieve date
palm pollination. The center submitted
a project that is part of our Go to Market
Initiative and that has been embedded
in our graduate-level Special Topics in
Entrepreneurship course; it is funded
in part by a foundation endowment and
supported by Tech Launch Arizona.
During the 2018-2019 school year,
Eller students joined forces with
engineering students to experiment
with aerial pollination methods, which
included attaching a pollen dispenser
to the bottom of a drone flown over the
flowers. On their first few practice runs,
they had a 75 percent success rate.
Students now are working to make
their approach more commercial and
scalable. Some team members are experimenting
with flying the drones over the
flowers using algorithms based on image
recognition and signals from various
attached sensors. Others are developing
a business plan to present to prospective
investors. For the student team, the true
aha moment came when they integrated
market demands and commercialization
opportunities into the engineering
design of the solution.
Most important, the students
realized that they can use a multidisciplinary
thought process to address related
problems in agriculture and other
fields. They now understand how crucial
it will be to collaborate with people from
other backgrounds and disciplines once
they’re in the working world.
Students at Eller are embarking on
other multidisciplinary projects that could have a real impact on human lives. For instance, last fall, students from Eller’s MBA and master’s of public health programs—three of whom were also physicians—explored the costs and benefits of using pharmacogenomics to test for heart disease. This relatively new field of study combines traditional medicine with a knowledge of heredity to develop effective pharmaceuticals tailored to individual genetics. Working with one of the school’s industry partners, the team determined that using a $150 cheek swab test on heart disease patients would generate a positive ROI for the organization. This project is part of a seminar course that has been so successful that we now are developing an online version.
We have additional collaborative initiatives underway, including plans to open a biotech innovation and commercialization lab in partnership with the College of Medicine in Phoenix and a sustainability and digital health lab that will be part of the new Arizona Forge incubator. The incubator is being created through a collaboration among the Eller College, the College of Sciences, various industry partners, and Biosphere 2—a research facility that focuses on understanding global scientific issues related to the Earth’s living systems. Next, we plan to open a data science innovation lab to create cross-boundary solutions in disciplines that range from fintech to retail to healthcare.
We believe that, in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, business schools have to be leaders that forge partnerships with industry representatives and other units on campus. Only then can we create cross-disciplinary experiential opportunities for all students—and prepare them for the increasingly fast-moving and collaborative future of work.
Paulo B. Goes is the dean and Halle Chair in Leadership at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management in Tucson.
This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Explorations of Leadership